Patriots Training Camp Preview: Wide Receivers

The Patriots are hoping for a year-two leap from N'Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, and others.

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The Patriots wide receivers are taking over social media this offseason by participating in throwing sessions with quarterbacks Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer. 

Although their hype videos are just that, hype, the Pats wideouts led by a reinvigorated Mohamed Sanu and a hungry N’Keal Harry are out to prove that last season was an anomaly. 

In 2019, New England’s wide receivers ranked dead-last in average separation and tied for the second-most dropped passes (22) as the Patriots’ offense plummeted down the stretch. 

After disappointing first seasons in Foxboro, Sanu hired a live-in coach (Drew Lieberman), and Harry worked with footwork guru Rischad Whitfield as the two try to bounce-back in year two. 

Sanu, and Harry, among others, look fantastic by all accounts, but the offseason workouts need to carry over to the game field because Bill Belichick is counting on improvements. 

In April, Belichick passed on a potentially historic wide receiver class in the draft because of resources used on Harry (2019 first-round pick) and Sanu (traded 2020 second-round pick). 

The Pats head coach is banking on Sanu, Harry, and the rest of the young Pats wideouts to make the leap in their second seasons with the team.

New England signed speedy veteran Damiere Byrd in free agency, who will factor in as a potential replacement for Phillip Dorsett, but limited cap space prevented a splash move. 

Belichick stood by as DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs, and others changed teams due to his limited resources, so now the onus is on the in-house talent to improve. 

PLAYER REPORTS

OUTSIDE RECEIVERS (X)
N’Keal Harry

Harry had one of the most disappointing rookie seasons among last year’s first-rounders. Even in an abbreviated camp, staying on the field this summer is vital for Harry as he tries to expand his role beyond what we saw after he came off injured reserve last year. Due to his stint on IR, Harry’s role was limited to playing mostly outside receiver, where he struggled to get away from press corners. Ideally, Josh McDaniels would move Harry around the formation to get him free for runs after the catch where he’s most dangerous. But ultimately, the pressure is on Harry to show that the Footwork King’s speed and route-running training is paying dividends. The Pats need him to contribute as the “X” receiver with Edelman, Sanu, and Meyers, leading a deep group of inside guys. The key for him is creating separation at the line with his releases by being more explosive instead of heavy and slow. Along with technique training, Harry also dropped weight this offseason to hopefully get faster. If he can move defensive backs at the line, then Harry can position himself to run away from the coverage and use his contested catch abilities down the field. If his releases don’t improve, he’ll wear coverage again. In his rookie season, Harry ranked dead-last among 143 qualified receivers in average separation. However, there’s a formula for Harry to break out by playing to his strengths of YAC ability and contested grabs, and Cam Newton’s willingness to work with young receivers and throw jump balls will help. The Patriots and their 2019 first-round pick need to find ways to get the ball in his hands besides schemed touches behind the line of scrimmage, and that’s on both Harry and the coaching staff to figure out. 

Damiere Byrd

In a classic under-the-radar signing, the Patriots poached Byrd from the Cardinals and other teams interested in his services. The speedy wideout runs in the mid-4.2s in the 40-yard dash, adding some much-needed speed on the perimeter for the Patriots. The Pats are hopeful that Byrd is an upgrade over Dorsett. The former Panthers and Cardinals wideout is more fluid in his hips to run a fuller route tree and pick up yards after the catch with returner-like skills. Byrd has returned both kickoffs and punts in his four NFL seasons and played with Newton in Carolina. Down the stretch last season, the Pats free-agent addition was Arizona’s best receiver and was clicking with quarterback Kyler Murray. With only 44 catches in four seasons, the offseason hype for Byrd might be too strong for some. But his tape backs up the talent and speed. We’ll see if he can put it all together. 

Quincy Adeboyejo 

The 6-foot-3, 200-pond wideout out of Mississippi is on his third team in two seasons as he bounces around NFL practice squads. Although he’s unlikely to make the roster, Adeboyejo’s size and speed make him a great scout team receiver to prepare for bigger wideouts. 

INSIDE RECEIVERS (SLOT/Z)
Julian Edelman

The Patriots’ slot machine was nearly a one-man show last season, adding almost double (0.34) the value of the next closed Pats receiver (Dorsett, 0.19) based on Pro Football Focus’s WAR metric. The only thing slowing Edelman down last season was a series of knee, rib, and shoulder injuries along with constant extra attention from opposing defenses. Even under those conditions, Edelman set a career-high with 1,117 receiving yards in 2019 by undressing defensive backs with expert route running. The former Super Bowl MVP’s ability to make room for himself to get off the line of scrimmage, burst into the secondary, attack blind spots downfield, and create separation at the top of his route make him one of the league’s top technicians. His longtime quarterback is in Tampa Bay, but Edelman will thrive with any QB throwing him the football because he gets open so easily. Keeping him healthy for the entire season is paramount to New England’s success in 2020. 

Mohamed Sanu

Call it an offseason trope if you want, but Sanu is in the best shape of his life. The Pats wideout is working day and night with Lieberman in preparation for the 2020 season with a giant chip on his shoulder. Sanu was slowed by a high-ankle sprain that required offseason surgery, and it is evident on tape that his foot speed and route running wasn’t as crisp. Plus, he was dropping passes, six to be exact, which was never an issue in the past. Sanu didn’t truly show off his talents in New England, but he’s dead-set on proving that the injury did him last season. Although there are concerns about overlapping routes with New England’s other slot options, Sanu’s expertise at the line of scrimmage and ability to break at the top of his routes without losing momentum made him an intriguing trade acquisition for New England. He’s on a mission to prove that Belichick was right. 

Jakobi Meyers

Meyers has been the quiet one this offseason, staying out of the social media frenzy, but he’s undoubtedly working on his craft the same as everyone else. The second-year wideout popped immediately as a rookie thanks to his moves at the line of scrimmage and football IQ. Meyers has quick feet to get defenders moving in the wrong direction off the line, setting himself up for wins out of the slot despite pedestrian speed. Meyers can run routes, but his lack of explosiveness makes it difficult for him to separate downfield from NFL DBs. He gets them leaning, but his one-gear speed makes it tough for him to run away from coverage. If he can become more dynamic as a route runner, Meyers has the makeup of a productive slot receiver. 

Gunner Olszewski 

Admittedly, I was surprised when Olszewski snuck his way onto the initial 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie. There’s no doubt that he’s a fearless and productive punt returner, and his routes did improve throughout the summer, but projecting him as a legit receiver gets tricky. Olszewski’s route-running technique is raw, and he lacks the necessary nuances to create separation at the top of routes, which is where he needs to win. The underdog kid from Texas has the quickness and burst to create separation, but doesn’t use that to have detailed route breaks. He was a regular at Stidham-led throwing sessions and is impressing teammates with his development. Due to New England’s plethora of inside receivers, and newly acquired punt returners in top pick Kyle Dugger and Byrd, Olszewski is again in an uphill battle to make the team. We doubted his chances once, and he proved us wrong. Maybe he’ll do it again this summer. 

Marqise Lee

There’s a universe where a finally healthy Lee returns to his 2016-17 form to make the Patriots, but his opportunities to prove himself will be few and far between. With a limited training camp and no preseason games, Lee, who is buried on the depth chart, might not get the practice reps necessary to make an impression. At his best, Lee was a productive slot receiver in a similar mold to Sanu. He’s not running away from anyone but caught 119 balls over his two most productive seasons in Jacksonville, thanks to good body control and strong hands at the catch point. Lee is another guy that’s more technician than burner, which usually works out here. However, New England has a lot of those guys, and it seems unlikely that he’ll get reps over Edelman, Harry, Sanu, Byrd, or Meyers. Lee needs to catch a break to make the team. 

Devin Ross

Ross spent most of the season on the Patriots’ practice squad then signed a futures contract after the season. At only 5-foot-9, Ross is a typical shifty slot receiver with kickoff return experience during his college days at Colorado. Ross will most likely be competing for a practice squad and scout-team role once again this season. 

Jeff Thomas (UDFA)

The savior of the 2020 Patriots offense is making a good impression on his coaches during virtual meetings (FWIW) and is the clear frontrunner to extend New England’s UDFA streak to a 17th season. At 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, Thomas’s size suggests a role in the slot would suit him best. Although with tons of inside receivers on the roster, the Pats might want to use his speed on the perimeter. The disgruntled former University of Miami star has a short fuse and could just as quickly get himself thrown off the team as he could make a Pro Bowl someday. Based on his lateral mobility at the line and vertical speed, Thomas has the tools to separate against press-man corners on the boundary. He can run a straight go and win over the top, but his optimal usage is running deep over routes, two-way verticals, and underneath crossers into space a la Tyreek Hill. The Patriots typically use shifty slot receivers like Edelman and rely on their tight ends to stretch the seams. But this offense is dying for some speed, and this scribe wants to see them feast on the same routes that Hill, John Brown, and others win on from the slot. Thomas can also factor in as a return man, which gives him a better chance at making the team. 

Will Hastings (UDFA)

After six players opted-out of the season due to the coronavirus, the Patriots brought Hastings back after initially releasing the undrafted rookie to get the roster down to 80 players. The Auburn product reunites with Jarrett Stidham in New England to see if they can recreate their chemistry from the 2017 season. In that season, Hastings averaged over 20 yards per catch hauling in 26 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns with Stidham at quarterback. The undersized wideout brings a vertical element and usual shiftiness for a slot receiver, but he sat out the entire 2018 season due to an ACL tear and didn’t have the same success in 2019 without Stidham. Plus, outside of an onside kick specialist, Hastings didn’t play much on special teams for the Tigers and didn’t return kicks. If he’s going to make the Patriots roster, he’ll need to learn ways to contribute in the kicking game.